Which is the real Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji?
Owner fed up with fight with another eatery with same name
When the late Mr Loh Mun Hon started Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji years ago, the eatery became so popular that several others with the same or similar names began sprouting across the island.
Many of them were opened by his disciples - with his blessings.
When one of them, Mr Kiong Tai Weng, found out that the Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji in a foodcourt at Block 151, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, was up for sale, he decided to buy the foodcourt, as Mr Loh was his mentor.
He paid $7.4 million for it in May, only to find out that an eatery with the same name had opened in another foodcourt just a few blocks away at Block 158, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4.
That eatery is owned by two men who used to run the Block 151 eating house, and most of its staff are also from there.
It opened on May 26, three days before Mr Kiong opened the Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji at Block 151.
The similarities between the two establishments do not end with the name.
Both use similar branding, with the same traditional Chinese characters on their signboards. The staff uniforms are white polo T-shirts with the name of the restaurant in red.
Mr Kiong, 38, said: "I spent a lot of money to buy this place. Of course, we don't want this kind of thing to happen.
"How was I to know that the previous operators would start up another restaurant nearby and use the same name?"
He said his business has been affected by the competition.
Both outlets also claim to have the same signature dishes - sliced fish hor fun and prawn paste chicken.
Many other items on their menus are similar. Even the crockery looks the same.
Customers The New Paper spoke to said they thought both outlets were operated by the same owner and were puzzled why they were so close to each other.
Many regulars thought that the Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji at Block 158 was the authentic outlet because they recognised the staff there.
A retiree, who wanted to be known only by his surname Lim, said: "I've come to Block 151 to eat for almost five years now. Most of the staff have gone to Block 158. So that must be where the original taste is."
But the truth is more complicated.
Mr Kiong started working at Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji at Block 151 around two decades ago.
Then, it was run by Mr Loh. Mr Kiong said he served drinks and Mr Loh was his mentor.
A few years ago, he left to strike out on his own, opening other restaurants, including Hong Kong Street Zhen Bao Ji in Clementi with Mr Loh's blessings.
Mr Loh died about six years ago, passing the reins to his younger brother, Mr Loh Mun Cheok, who still runs a Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji off Alexandra Road.
When the outlet at Block 151 was put up for sale, a Mr Jackie Goh bought it for $3.5 million, said Mr Kiong.
Said Mr Kiong in Mandarin: "I thought it wasn't nice for the 151 outlet to go into someone else's hands, so I decided to buy it for a larger sum."
But his first hint of trouble came when 151's previous operators removed the antique tables and chairs before vacating the premises. The wooden signboard was also taken away.
Then, three days before Mr Kiong opened his restaurant, the other Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji opened just a five-minute walk away.
On May 30, Mr Loh Mun Cheok called Mr Kiong to inform him that he had applied for a trademark of the name, which is still pending approval.
Mr Kiong said : "I've owned many properties, but this is the most problematic sale. To be honest, I really regret buying this."
He is not considering legal action, as he is confident that customers will flock to his outlet.
"I don't want to make this a big deal. It doesn't matter if they exist. They can call themselves by the same name, but what's the use if their food is no good?
"I know we have the culinary skills. That's the most important thing," said Mr Kiong, who helps out with the cooking.
Name was not for sale, say owners
NAME IS OURS: Mr Chan Hon Mung (top) and Mr Tay Lian Chye (above) co-owners of Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji at Block 158 Ang Mo Kio. The name was not part of the sale. TNP PHOTOS: GARY GOH, BENJAMIN SEETOR, YEOH WEE TECK
The owners of Block 158's Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji maintain they have the right to use the name.
Mr Tay Lian Chye, 50, co-owner of JCS F&B Holdings, who owns the Block 158 outlet, believes they are not in the wrong because the sale of the Block 151 eatery to Mr Kiong Tai Weng did not include the eatery's name.
Only the foodcourt and all the kitchen machinery were sold, he said.
"How can (Mr Kiong) claim to use the name? We have been working there for almost 10 years and we haven't even seen him before," said Mr Tay in Mandarin.
His partner, co-owner Chan Hon Mung, 46, had also worked at Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji when its original owner, Mr Loh Mun Hon, was running it.
When Mr Loh died about six years ago, the outlet was sold to Mr Jackie Goh, a friend of Mr Tay and Mr Chan.
Said Mr Chan: "Last June, Jackie told us he didn't want to continue and let me and Mr Tay take over the business."
Since Mr Goh still owned the foodcourt, neither Mr Chan nor Mr Tay got a share of the $7.4 million sale proceeds.
Mr Goh could not be reached for comment.
The New Paper understands that the sale contract only involved the sale of the property and not the name of the eatery.
When asked if they knew what the exact terms of the contract were, Mr Chan said they were not sure.
But they said their regular customers can attest to the quality of their food, which they claim has never changed.
"The regulars know us by the name of our eatery. They recognise us.
"We have always called our eatery Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji. If we were forced to change the name, of course there would be harm done," said Mr Chan.
Will name affect business?
So who is in the right here?
It depends on who owns the intellectual property rights to the name, said commercial crimes and regulatory offences lawyer Terence Seah.
"Sometimes, such deals involve only the sale of the restaurant operations but not the name of the restaurant," he said.
Mr Seah, who is with Shook Lin & Bok law firm, said that if the sale included the name, then it would not be right for the seller to continue using the name.
If both restaurants retain the same name, their business may be affected.
"There will be loss of profits due to confusion among the customers," said Mr Seah
Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh felt that customers do not care much about the names of eateries.
Mr Seetoh told The New Paper: "In the end, customers want food that is convenient, good and cheap, and with good service, especially for such family-style food."
He once commemorated the creator of Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji, the late Mr Loh Mun Hon, in a video, in which he said: "A lot of his disciples and associates who used to work with him, with his blessings, went out to set up all these Hong Kong Street eateries.
"Ah Hon had no qualms about it... he told them to just make sure their food was consistently good for all the customers, all the time."